Interview: Francesca Forristal Talks Theatre, Drag & the Importance of Laughing to Learn

My latest gossipy chinwag is with Francesca Forristal, comedy and songwriter, actor and drag artist extraordinaire. Here Francesca talks about getting into the arts, the importance of broad thinking when it comes to drag artists and why it’s so important to laugh at the difficult subjects in order to truly engage with and understand them. So, get yourself a cuppa and settle in as we talk all things theatre, drag, laughter and progressive thinking…

So how did you get drawn into theatre and the drag scene – which way round was it?

I have always been a very thespie, music-y person. Mainly into musicals and stuff – I did a lot of musical theatre at school but then when I went to uni I started doing improv comedy with the Oxford Imps. I started writing sketches, so I came into it kind of through a comedy lens and then when I was doing my finals and it was procrastination time, I thought right, well, I’m gay as fuck, I should probably try drag! Also, at the time I was kind of questioning gender stuff and I was like I don’t really want to start binding my chest – is that something I wanna do? And then I was like ooooh I’m just non-binary and I like doing drag.

So I started doing improv comedy in my drag persona which was really fun and I loved musical theatre, so I thought why don’t I bring that in and make it improv drag theatre? Then I moved to London and started writing more comedy stuff like Oddball and won a couple of award things at the Camden Fringe. I chatted to a guy called Jordan Clarke, who does the show Showstopper! (improvised musical theatre) we were like, hey do you want to write together and then I was like WOO – I’ve never done it, I write comedy… but sure! Musicals? Let’s give it a go. I then did a lot of swotting up on how to write librettos and now we’re on our third musical which is kinda cool. It seems to be going quite well so we’re just going to keep doing it!

It’s definitely going well. You’ve been getting quite a lot of recognition with awards and noms and shortlists – it must be pretty great?

It’s really cool because certainly to me I love writing for other people and I like writing for myself. I like knowing what your own voice can do and being able to write for that, especially with the comedy background… With comedy, if you aren’t acting a song when you’re doing a skit, it’s not going to land. So for me, that grounding really supports a solid musical theatre performance because you’re more concerned with the overall output; are you (the audience) going to understand what I’m saying rather than just (sings) ahhhh, a pretty voiiiiice!

I saw you in Villain, Interrupted at the Camden Fringe, so I’m now wondering, if you are into the solo comedy scene and the musical comedy scene and the drag scene, how did you get pulled into that fringe show scene? It seems a little bit left field compared to your usual?

(Laughs) Yeah, it is. The writer of Villain, Interrupted knew me from Dragprov. They auditioned a load of people for it but they wanted someone who could improvise because the way that KT, the writer, writes is she’ll write a first pass which is the bare-bones script you, get some really talented improvisers in a room and say, alright, this scenario – go! So she needed people who would be able to develop the characters with her and develop the funnies. She’s amazing at world-building and concepts and ideas but she loves it when her actors come in and bring different elements of comedy to it.

Well that will be why it felt so fresh then, with those various influences and an improv foundation. So. If we head to your website, we’ll be told as introduction to you: writer, performer, drag king, queer, feminist, funny. Are those defining features generally driving what you choose to produce and take on?

That’s really interesting because I think I’d say all of those things define who I am as a performer; if you’re hiring me, you’re gonna get dark comedy, you’re gonna get some gender fuckery and a loud and hairy person – I’m both loud and hairy in every way. I think in terms of what I like writing and creating, I’m super interested in anti-heroes and dark comedy. How can my relationship with an audience, be it through a look or just creating a compelling character that we shouldn’t necessarily like but we do, how do I make them laugh at things or understand things differently through a little bit of comedy? I think being who I am as a person – in terms of gender-stuff me, queer-ness always comes in but it’s not like (dons comic high-maintenance character) ‘I’m not going to be in a play unless it’s gay – what’s this, a script? Oh…no gays in it? No sorry byeeeee’.

I’m interested in looking at relationships which don’t get on screen that much – and it’s not for the sake of it, I’m not gonna only write for women or only write for queer people because that to me is not the point. I want to see background gays. I want to see stories where people just ARE the multi-faceted, multi-coloured, multi-everything that the world naturally is – and for them to have stories which aren’t naturally related to that. I think in a way, I’m like ‘stupid Cesca, don’t define what you’re doing with sexuality, define it by the stories they’re telling’.

Amen… Now, your Metro article makes great reading – particularly when pointing out the irony of the gender gap following a female performer into the realm of drag kings. I’m interested to know whether you would like to see the world of drag kings get the same kind of exposure and mainstream attention as drag queens via Drag Race, or are you more keen to have it recognised and appreciated in its own right?

I think it’s a really complex issue. I want to get to a point in mainstream culture where drag is understood to be an umbrella term for a medium in the same way that theatre, ballet, musical theatre are understood to be mediums rather than styles. So someone can go ‘oh I really love theatre’ and you can say ‘cool, what kind of theatre do you like?’ and they’ll be like ‘Oh I really love physical theatre’ and someone else can say ‘what the fuck? No, I prefer realism – Stanislavski, all the way!’

And equally with drag, there are different styles and I’d love for it not to be divided into drag kings and drag queens as the two styles, because that’s not a thing. So I’d love it to be Art-Pop-Drag, which is drag kings, queens, princes; people who don’t identify as either because a lot of drag is non-binary nowadays. Then there’s that seedy drag that you get in the back of a pub and the arty drag which is on the internet – like Dorian Elektra which is just BEAUTIFUL and glorious. And then you have character comedy drag which again is men and women and people who don’t identify as either. I’d love to just get to the point where it’s accepted and appreciated as a medium which allows for variety and doesn’t have to branded as a high or low class art form.

At the moment I think people are more like ‘oh drag is seedy/ drag is glorious and fabulous’ and I’m like okay, let’s find some light and shade there.

And do you think part of it is that to talk about drag it becomes very binary very quickly –does there need to be a term that is more recognised beyond the most used labels of king/ queen – isn’t that the part which seems counter-intuitive?

That’s it, you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s what I’m saying when I talk about drag needs to be an umbrella term. I talk about being a drag performer a lot, trying to remove some of the gender elements to it. I think there are some differences in performance style, in the same way that you can say men are more generally like this and women are more generally like that; there are some generalisations you can make in drag as well.

Queens tend to go for more dirty humour, mainly comedy with a lot of live singing in England. They paint their faces in a certain way and they have a certain style with padding and nails and stuff like that. King’s performances are often more political. Kings tend to be non-binary – there are a lot more non-binary performers as kings and they tend to be slightly more intense so on a bill, if you’re organising drag kings and queens, you’ll normally try to orchestrate it so that the comedy can outweigh the intensity with some of the more emotional drag king performances.

But coming back to your (Drag Race and mainstream exposure) question, I’d like to see some shows which acknowledge kings but I think they already exist, like Dragula – it’s just that they’re not mainstream. The reason Drag Race has done so well in my opinion is because it’s captured a white ‘yas queen’ girl market which is in many ways quite appropriative; in many ways quite problematic. It’s like the ‘fun’ bit of being gay that everyone likes, the same reason why people buy the rainbow H&M bags and they’re like (takes on a character) ‘yas queen, slay – I love my gay friends they’re so great they’re, like, never sad!’ – you know?

Oh, I know. But your drag show is musical and improvised from audience input. You are eager to make clear that it’s not about bawdiness – you can do without your swearing and your muck, it’s more about the comedy and the fun side. Why do you take that route – is it a decisive rejection of those traits?

No – say you come and see me at the non-binary drag show at the RBT and I’m just doing a solo performance as Christian Adore on a bill line up and I’ve got ten minutes. The audience in front of me is bawdy, slightly pissed up, enjoying the humour, slightly thirsty lesbians… I’m gonna bawd it up I’m obviously gonna make the sex jokes! Because that’s what they want and that’s what they’re there for. But at the same time, if I’m doing a Dagprov show – ie an improvised musical, where we have a live pianist and it’s me and Eton Mess and it’s our professional show, that setting and the reason people have come is to see a witty musical comedy – they haven’t come for a piss-up. So it’s about adapting that show to that audience.

And it’s so much easier to get a laugh from going ‘shit’ than it is from making a joke so it’s just about for us, as a personal challenge, how far can we push ourselves as comedians without reaching for the toilet humour? Everyone will laugh at poo…let’s try a bit harder! And I think it’s also that brand which rose out of me being a teacher for a year and being really insistent that were my students ever to want to engage with gender play or diversifying what they watch or listen to or whatever – and say a parent came to see it to suss it out, I would have a leg to stand on in saying look there’s nothing wrong with this, there’s no reason why I can’t teach your child and be an inspirational figure for your child and still be queer and do queer theatre.

See, I was just wondering if you were purposefully heading out to do a cleaner kind of drag because you were thoroughly bored of same old same old…

Well, that too! I am consciously very children-led. I’m currently writing a show about it – I want children to be able to engage in gender play and queerness aside from sexuality because when I was growing up the main thing I was scared of was if I told my parents I was gay or anything like that, they’d be like ‘oh so you’re the dirty kind of sex’ rather than just being like ‘oh you just love a different kind of person’.

Moving on to your character then… If Christian Adore is ‘camp, glittery and emotional’, would you say he’s a heightened or exaggerated version of some of you or is he absolutely an indulgent alter-ego?

I think when I started doing drag I was super scared of being hyper-feminine. I was like I am a gay lady – that means I’ve got to be in my trackies like ‘don’t fuck with me’ and I really didn’t like that about myself. I had a lot of problems with having a feminine body and being female – internalised xenophobia right, we all have it to a certain extent. When I started doing drag, it was amazing because I was a bloke who was loving having glitter and loving looking fabulous and embracing all those elements of femininity in a really exciting way. I was like ‘oh wait this doesn’t have to be a gender thing’ and it made me more comfortable with beautiful and pretty things and being indulgent.

And also I think yes, I am super repressed (laughs); I don’t like talking about my emotions; I don’t like being sad; I don’t like telling people how I feel OKAY? (more laughs) But then being Christian Adore, he’s the soppiest – he wants to tell you his feelings all of the time and just wants to tell people that he loves them and hopes that they will love him too. I think that’s definitely an element of me, I just don’t like showing it because I’m, like…repressed! (more laughs here)

So he’s basically therapy on a stage?

Yes! Welcome to theatre!

Great stuff! So onto your solo comedy show then, Oddball; ‘deconstructing every toxic preconception society has about eating disorders’ and yet it’s hilarious – can you explain how you arrived at that comedy show?

I think because I was sick of feeling embarrassed at something that was, and still is, a massive fuck-uppery in my brain – and a big part of my life. I was ill for like ten years – like really ill. I started making myself sick when I was 13 and was anorexic, in and out of hospitals, not going to school and all this. I got really ill at uni, then kind of turned it around – woo! It’s still something I struggle with, always will be, it never goes away, not completely because you still have all those numbers in your brain.

BUT. If I was a kid who’s had any other chronic illness – it’s one of those things where people say ‘so why didn’t you do this thing’ or ‘what was your teenage-hood like’ I don’t want to have to lie about something that was literally my life for ten years. The look on people’s faces when you tell them you’ve had anorexia or an eating disorder – (another character moment) ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you don’t have to talk about it it’s okay – I’m so…so…sorry…I’ll just go…shoot myself now…g-bye!’ So they can’t handle the disclosure because they look at you like you must be so vain or you’re like this wilting flower and it’s not that, it’s literally the same as any kind of OCD or addiction. It’s an addiction, it is. I may as well be an alcoholic, just without the alcohol.

I just wanted to make people go ‘okay it’s alright to laugh about this’. Once you understand it as an addiction and you understand why I’m not a shit, vain person – I’m just a very compulsive person and this is how that manifests. I take away all the value judgements from it then you can laugh with me; it is fucking hilarious that I’m standing in front of a sandwich shop for ten minutes being like ‘which sandwich?’ then walking away without buying any sandwiches! It’s dark. So it’s getting people to laugh about the darkness of it but also to understand it.

So it’s education, enlightenment and comedy combined?

Yes. I mean, I guess people need to laugh because that’s how families deal with it and that’s how friends deal with it. When you’re friends with someone who’s got depression, you don’t sit and cry with them every day – sometimes they’re like ‘I can’t get out of bed’ and you’re like (laughs) ‘lol – oh no!’ – ‘get out of bed you fuck ‘ed!’. There’s got to be some kind of levity there so that we can support and understand. We’re British, we need it! It’s about not being patronising at its core.

Onwards we go! We’re now heading into the lighter questions now. As a comedy performer, I want to know what makes you belly laugh?

Oh, easy – I love character comedy. When I’m by myself and I’m on YouTube, what do I watch? Character comedy. I like seeing someone really live and inhabit a character – to just say things that that character would say and then watching people be funny as human beings – to be that person. You know when you see a character coming in and you just KNOW that person? And you’re like oh my God that is SO that person and it’s so quick and funny. I found one the other day and I was just on the floor belly laughing!

Who inspires you most in theatre/ performance/ the arts?

(Silent look of utter dismay here…) Oh! Can I do a writing trio? Sheep Soup. Sheep Soup are a musical theatre writing trio who are very new – they’re from up north. They are making a musical about hoarding, about a woman who’s a hoarder. And they are so funny.

They have the same thing as me, you know when I was saying we need to make eating disorders funny so that people can understand it without being patronising? They make this woman’s condition so completely relatable, so that I, someone who’s never had experience of hoarding, can watch it and understand how she got there. It’s so funny; it’s surreal, it’s witty, it’s musical gorgeousness…and they’re quite good performers too! When they perform their own music you can see the joy in it and I’m just completely obsessed with them and I want to see what they do…forever. They are genuinely I think gonna be one of the cool people in five year’s time – when everyone’s like ‘yeah, Sheep Soup!’

And you’ll be able to say you called it.

I need to spread this now so that when they get famous they’ll be like ‘Cesca was always an advocate’ and I can be like ‘yes – be my friend!’ (much laughter here – Cesca is all of us at this point).

Is there a particular show or performance that has had a lasting impact on you? You can say the same trio if you like here…

Oh so many… (more silent dismay). Okay, YES. A formative impact. Bernadette Peters singing Not a Day Goes By at the Sondheim Birthday Celebrations. When I was younger, I found it on YouTube and there was something about the way she did the line (sings) ‘I’ll die day after day after day after day after day after day’. Each ‘day’ was different and the decisions she made with it in terms of how she acted that song and how she really prioritised the acting over the singing – when I was 14 watching this I was just like ‘shit, music isn’t just pretty singing, it’s acting and if I can just act everything I sing then I’ll be a happy bunny’. The journey she took me on in that song…I think about it all the time!

You’re going to go and watch that again straight after this, aren’t you? I can tell...

Yes, yes I am – legit!

If you could create real change in the arts, what would you beeline for? Because there’s so much to choose from…

I would want to bridge the gap and educate. There is a massive gap between shows which get produced to commercial level – West End, high level theatres etc, and then there’s new writing. And unless you are someone who has connections quite early on, or you’re quite rich – ie you can afford to not work at the same time, or you know, your dad knows someone who can explain to you how producing works – a lot of new writers get to a certain fringe level and have no idea how to make it go any further. They don’t really know anything about production or producing or how to contact people – they don’t even really know how to write the emails.

There’s just so much lack of knowledge that we have this gap. I’d love to find some way of linking theatres (the New Diorama is doing it a bit) to emerging new writers and getting stuff out there, connecting it with good, young producers who want to make a difference so that I can look at the West End or look at commercial theatre and see theatre that I’m proud of and that I want to be watching, rather than something that will sell tickets because it’s a safe choice.

Do you have a good ‘the show must go on’ story?

Yes! Okay…I’m torn… So, ‘show must go on’ story one: me and my drag partner Ed Scrivens had just done a gig in Oxford and we’re travelling down to London for another gig that same night. We need to get into drag because we’ve just done this comedy gig that wasn’t drag, and we get on the Oxford Tube (which is like a megabus) and we sit opposite each other at a table and we get out all our make-up.

We’ve got about an hour to get into drag before we get to London – easy peasy. Sit down and start…and the announcement comes on ‘welcome to the Oxford Tube’… the lights go down. There are no lights on the bus. Because everyone’s going to sleep because it’s after the time when normal people sleep, so the bus is trying to put everyone to sleep and we’re sat there in pitch black holding this make-up like, we’re literally going to arrive at the venue five minutes before we go on stage, we have to be in drag… we can’t just go on stage without drag! We’re going to have to do this in the dark… There was no light in the toilet so we had to put on full drag in a dark Megabus with a tiny cracked mirror and muscle memory, just hoping that the make-up would go on right. We actually looked quite good! (laughs)

So the end result wasn’t a disaster at least?

It wasn’t a disaster – I mean, my colouration was slightly off…my flicks were less than on fleek, BUT I was in drag and that’s all that mattered.

Well it was comedy so you can get away with that!

Exactly – I could be like ‘my face is the comedy tonight guys’! The only thing I would say though, from ‘the show must go on’ perspective is that personally I really hate that phrase because it encourages performers to go on stage when they’re sick and I think that’s really bad. No really it does – it’s this idea that no matter how bad your mental health is, no matter how bad your throat is, you just need to take those lozenges girl and get on stage. I think that’s the worst thing ever. I got Strep the other week and I was crying because we had a sold out show in Oxford with 150 tickets sold and I was like, I can’t speak, how am I supposed to do this show? And we had to cancel the show. I remember bawling at Ed and he was like ‘look, sometimes the show doesn’t need to go on. Your health comes first’.

And on that important note, that’s all for now folks. So, when lockdown is over and the industry get back up and running, you’ll be able to find Forristal performing her Dragprov show and various other projects. For now, you can head to Forristal’s Website, Twitter Page, Dragprov page and Forristal & Clarke page for links to some fabulous content and show information.

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